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A Lao leader: A refugee from his home country, Soumetho embraced Minnesota

Bounlorm Soumetho is pictured in the Lao Temple Siri Buddharam. (Karl Evers-Hillstrom / The Globe)1 / 3
Bounlorm Soumetho is pictured in front of Master Monk Phone Naboutsy (center) and two monks who traveled to Worthington to preach Buddhism. (Karl Evers-Hillstrom / The Globe)2 / 3
Karl Evers-Hillstrom / The Globe3 / 3

WORTHINGTON — Bounlorm Soumetho has had quite a journey.

Born in southern Laos in 1950, near the border of Cambodia and South Vietnam, Soumetho was a toddler when civil war broke out.

As a young man, he served in the financial department of the Royal Lao Army, which was fighting alongside the U.S. against the North Vietnamese and communist guerilla group Pathet Lao.

When Pathet Lao took over the country in 1975, Soumetho had two options: escape or face nearly certain death. Like many Laotian immigrants currently residing in the U.S., Soumetho fled his home country the next year. After spending four years in Thailand, he bought a one-way plane ticket to the United States.

It was the U.S. retreat from the war that effectively forced Soumetho and hundreds of thousands of other Laotians to leave their homeland. But Soumetho picked the U.S. as his destination because of the time he spent with American servicemen, who gave him a brief introduction to the English language.

Soumetho decided he would move to the Twin Cities, where he met up with a couple of friends. He quickly became popular in his new home — so popular that he was elected president of the area Lao Community, for which he would serve two four-year terms.

“As the new leadership, I had to maintain, organize, direct everything,” Soumetho said.

Unfortunately, Soumetho couldn’t stay forever. His wife, Massa, had developed severe asthma, and a doctor suggested they move to a smaller town with less pollution.

In 1989, the couple and their three daughters moved to Mountain Lake. Right away, Soumetho went looking for friends.

Jim Brandt, a local pastor, was the first person to introduce himself to Soumetho. He invited the family to his Christian church — an invitation Soumetho accepted.

“I went to the American gospel church and I learned about the old testament,” Soumetho said. “We pray Christian, we pray Catholic, we pray Buddhist, because we believe in heaven and we believe in God.”

The Laos membership in the Twin Cities felt so sorry for Soumetho that within three months, 15 members had moved to Mountain Lake with him. But bad luck struck. Soumetho’s position at Land O’Lakes was eliminated when much of the business was relocated to Milwaukee, Wis.

The job loss brought Soumetho to Worthington in 1991, where his family opened Soumetho Asian Food Market on Oxford Street.

Mayor Bob Demuth, now a good friend, was the first person to congratulate Soumetho during his grand opening.

“He walked in and said, ‘Welcome to Worthington,’” Soumetho said. “He told me how proud he was to see me do business in his town.”

Then, after a good run of eight years, bad luck struck again. An electrical fire destroyed the store’s merchandise, and Soumetho was once again looking for a job.

He found work in machining for Rosenboom Machine and Tool Company in Sheldon, Iowa; and 10 years later he was hired by Bedford Industries, where he has worked for more than a decade.

Soumetho has a lot to be proud of. He and Massa raised five daughters, all of whom graduated from Worthington High School and went on to higher education. He is now serving his second term as president of the Worthington Lao Community — matching his two terms in Minneapolis. Also, he serves as Advisory Board Chairman for the temple. His colorful Lao Community floats have won four best float titles at King Turkey Day since 2000.

However, Soumetho’s proudest achievement came in 2004, when Lao Temple Siri Buddharam was finally erected.

In the early 2000s, the Lao population in Worthington was growing — and so was the need for a temple. Soumetho, being president, was under tremendous pressure to get the job done.

“I spent two years looking everywhere for a location,” Soumetho said. “I did a lot of work for no pay … I paid for a lot of gas myself.”

Soumetho finally found a good location, on the northwest outskirts of Worthington, and was able to get it approved by the Nobles County Board of Commissioners and surrounding neighbors.

The compact, welcoming temple — along with its accompanying house — serves as a home for the native Lao community, for the Buddhist monks it houses and for anyone who wants to learn more about the religion or culture.

Twenty-seven years after Soumetho moved to Worthington, the town is now a central hub for Laotian celebrations. It gathers hundreds from the tri-state area during big events, and has attracted several Americans that wanted to learn from the temple’s Buddhist monks.

“The temple makes us proud,” Soumetho said. “I am so happy to have a great community here in Worthington.”

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